WASHINGTON--For decades, the National Security Agency did most of its spying by plucking information out of thin air. With a global network of listening stations and satellites, the NSA eavesdropped on phone conversations in Saddam Hussein's bunker, snatched Soviet missile-launch secrets and once caught Brezhnev in his limousine chatting about his mistress.
The NSA's task was relatively simple then because most international phone-and-data traffic moved via satellites or microwave towers. The agency sucked up those signals and sorted through them with supercomputers. Few of its eavesdroppers risked life or limb, and those they spied upon were often none the wiser.
But today the NSA's snooping capabilities are in jeopardy, undermined by advances in telecommunications technology. Much of the information the agency once gleaned from the airwaves now travels in the form of light beams through fiber-optic cables crisscrossing continents and ocean floors. That shift has forced the NSA to seek new ways to gather intelligence--including tapping undersea cables, a technologically daunting, physically dangerous and potentially illegal task.
[tags] national security agency, nsa officials, missile launch, fiber optic cables, cable tapping, fiber optic cable, microwave towers, light beams, undersea cables, phone conversations, former intelligence, ocean floors, mid 1990s, intelligence officials, telecommunications technology, data traffic, brezhnev, thin air, supercomputers, global network[/tags]